A lot of folks are very unhappy with BBC America’s The Watch series. I really enjoyed it, and I’m going to explain why I think my experience was so different from theirs. There shouldn’t be any spoilers for either the series or the books in this post.
What is “The Watch”?
The Watch is BBC America’s adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, in particular those that deal with the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork. The events of the first (and so far only) season are (very loosely) based on the first of the “City Watch” Discworld books, Guards! Guards!
Should you watch it?
Obviously, I think you should. The Watch presents a very different version of the Discworld, but it’s made with heart, by people who obviously cared about the source material, and who understood what it was about. It is, by turns, funny, heartbreaking, and transcendent.
You don’t have to have any previous knowledge of the Discworld to enjoy the show, but you can possibly appreciate more of the easter eggs if you do.
Why did so many reviewers and Pratchett fans hate “The Watch”?
I mentioned above that The Watch takes place in a very different Discworld than the one from the novels. I think those differences were just too much of a hurdle for some folks. Ironically, The Watch might have been better received if it had no connection whatsoever to a beloved fantasy series.
It’s okay to not like things that other people like…and vice versa.
I’m not here to tell you that you’re wrong if you didn’t enjoy The Watch. What I want to do here is look at some of the commentary that I’ve seen, and maybe give a bit of perspective from “the other side”.
I recently started re-reading all of the Discworld books, starting with the City Watch books, so this seems like a good time to make comparisons between the two. The events of The Watch are largely based on the first of the City Watch books, Guards! Guards!, but there are a great many differences.
Does it matter if something is “canon”?
A common complaint that I hear about The Watch, and about the Hitchhiker’s Guide movie, and about the latest Star Trek or Star Wars (whatever is currently “latest”) is that it violates the established canon. That’s something you hear from dedicated fans all the time. But what does that even mean?
When people use the term “Canon”, it means different things in different contexts. Religious Canon is different from Literary Canon, which is in turn different from Star Wars Canon.
When people talk about things like the Western Canon in academia, they mean the body of artistic work that is considered to be “classic”, or the standard against which other art is compared. And for many, many years, that meant, essentially: “a made-up progression, that leads from Ancient Greek philosophers (or authors, or artists), straight through to White Men of a certain age and social class, in Western Europe”. Lately that definition has expanded a bit, but for centuries, it was implicitly used as a way to exclude from consideration for “classic” status any works outside of a rigidly-defined set of pre-approved social/racial groups, aka gatekeeping.
Science Fiction and Comic Book fans have adopted this same term to mean “those works set in a particular fictional universe that are generally accepted as ‘real'”. This is partly a gatekeeping exercise, just as it is/was in academia, but it’s also a necessary reaction to the tendency for the corporate stewards of shared universes to allow characters and settings to ‘drift’, as more and more authors add more and more of their own (sometimes mutually exclusive) ideas.
If you tried to hold in your head that every single origin story for your favorite superhero was true simultaneously you’d probably be very confused. For comic books, the big publishers pretty readily adopted the idea of the “multiverse” neatly side-stepping the need for excessive retroactive continuity by simply declaring that any contradictions in backstories took place in some other universe. This has also been hugely freeing for the authors and other artists involved in these properties, allowing them to stretch their wings a bit, in a safe place, where it can all be swept away in a “crisis on multiple worlds” storyline, if necessary.
Speaking of alternate universes…
One of the very smart things about The Watch is that it explicitly takes place in an alternate dimension from the books. They announce it, right on the title card of every single episode:
So, yes – these characters aren’t exactly the same characters from the books. It is in fact an important plot point of The Watch that there are multiple, possibly infinite, versions of all of these characters, residing in their own versions of the Discworld. And…it’s also a plot point in one of the City Watch books. In Jingo, there is an explicit reference to multiple versions of Commander Vimes, in multiple alternate timelines. This is actually something that comes up somewhat frequently in the Discworld books, with various characters either getting a look into, or a brief experience of, a different version of their life.
Inevitably, whenever a book is adapted into a visual medium, you’ll see complaints about how some characters “don’t look like” how they were described in the book. I get it – you’ve got this image in your head, and when the character doesn’t match it, it can be a bit off-putting, at first.
I think that a lot of times these complaints are rooted somewhere else, though. Sometimes it’s a case of “I don’t like this, and this character doesn’t match my expectations, and therefore, it’s their fault I didn’t like it”. There’s a great essay from Film Crit Hulk about this phenomenon, where someone will seize on the most visible changes as “the reason” they don’t like something.
And sometimes, it’s just racism, or homophobia, or transphobia, or general fear of “the other”. And hoo boy, is there a lot of that sort of criticism around The Watch. The actress playing Sybil is not a big, fat, (assumed) white woman. The actor playing Cheery Littlebottom is non-binary. Lord Vetinari is played by the amazing Anna Chancellor.
The thing is – if you don’t bring your own preconceived ideas into it, all of these actors do a hell of a job bringing these characters to life. They play them with passion, and with heart, and with just the right amounts of cynicism and humor.
Character growth is “a thing”, actually.
One of the complaints that I personally find most confusing is the people who think Vimes’ character is not faithful to the books. I suspect that for some of those people, it’s been a very long time since they read Guards! Guards!, and they’re comparing the rather heroic figure that Vimes turns into in the later books to the pathetic version in the first season of The Watch.
Maybe they don’t remember, but Vimes spends the majority of the first book blind drunk, literally lying in the gutter. He’s pretty damned broken down at the beginning, and it isn’t until Lady Ramkin takes him up as a project that he really starts to get his shit together.
The same goes for all of the members of the Watch in the books, as they react to the increasing diversity of the Watch over time. They go from “I don’t know why we should have Dwarfs in the Watch”, to “I don’t have a problem with Trolls, Dwarves, and Zombies, but NO VAMPIRES”, to finally accepting that being the City Watch means being the watch for the whole city.
Welcome to the century of the fruit-bat…I mean, the century of the mash-up.
One of the defining characteristics of 21st century culture is the rise of the mash-up. We smash things together and see what sticks. Humans have always done this, of course. But as I look around me and see Lil Nas X winning a Grammy award for a Country Rap song, and HBO making a B-movie disaster film into a Emmy-winning mini-series exploring the nature of self-awareness and what it means to be human, I think we can safely say that genre-bending is where it is at, culturally speaking.
The Ankh-Morpork of the Discworld novels has a very Steampunk aesthetic, where magic and technology combine to produce a world which uses semaphore towers for long-distance communication, and Imps in a box to make photographs. There’s a whole through-line throughout the books about the rise of mechanization and technology in Discworld.
Ankh-Morpork in The Watch has a very different look, but it still has a foot in each of the mundane and fantasy worlds. There are dragons and trolls and dwarfs, but there are also electric lights, amplified musical instruments, a ticker tape machine that (apparently) reports crime across the city automatically, and Imp-powered security cameras on the street corners.
Overall, it leans very heavily into the “punk” part of the Steampunk aesthetic, with a 80’s/90’s twist. There are leather jackets, Doc Marten boots, and eyeliner for everyone. There’s graffiti on the alleyway walls, and pay-phones on the corners. Who knows how those work? And who cares? It’s garish, it’s colorful, and it’s deeply nostalgic for a certain subset of us watching.
But what is it about, actually?
What The Watch really nails in its interpretation of the City Watch books is the idea of a group of misfits coming together and creating a life for themselves, and each other. They are the people that nobody else wanted, and they find their shared community and build strong relationships, in a place where they’re free to be who they are for the first time in their lives.
In the years since the Discworld books were first published, the “real” world has moved on, and I think it’s fitting that the specific kinds of otherness and not-fitting-in have shifted in the new series, as well. But the core idea of these deeply flawed characters helping each other to thrive is still there.
Angua and Cheery are still the real “outsiders” in this version of the Watch, and they are still friends who help each other figure out how to navigate that.
Carrot is still the idealistic foil to Vimes’s cynicism, and he is still that one guy that everybody likes, though they can’t really say why.
And Sam Vimes is still the guy who starts very very low, but learns from his fellow watchmen to aim higher. A leader who finally finds his calling, and starts to believe that he can make the world a better place.
There are all sorts of shifts in the plot, compared to Guards! Guards!, and that really doesn’t bother me. There’s still a dragon, there’s still a shared history between Vimes and the main antagonist, and there’s still the story of a broken man who finds his salvation in the service of others.
So, what happens now?
I don’t know if the online hatred for The Watch translated into disappointing results for BBC America. I really hope that they make another series of The Watch. I’d like to see where it goes from here.